INFORMATION, Media and Broadcasting Services Minister Jonathan Moyo appears determined to push for a renaissance in the media industry, but analysts contend that the real test of his mission lies in reinvigorating and transforming the public media in line with the new Constitution.
Since taking over in September, Moyo’s conduct has allayed fears that his second appointment into government since 2000 when he served up to 2004 was going to trigger a cocktail of prescriptions that would throw the industry into turmoil.
Together with his deputy, Supa Mandiwanzira, the minister has extended a hand of friendship to all and sundry in the media, calling for professionalism and better working conditions for journalists across the divide as well as stressing the need for an end to media polarisation.
The minister has also toured and exchanged notes with a number of publications, including the Financial Gazette.
Thus far, it has been well and encouraging.
Nonetheless, analysts contend that the real test for his supposed new renaissance mission is whether or not the main factor undermining the independence of the public media ― political meddling — is addressed.
The minister takes over when a new Constitution has just come into operation and that supreme law, among others, guarantees the independence of the country’s state-run media.
The charter also reserves room for dissenting voices in the public media.
“All state-owned media of communication must a) be free to determine independently the editorial content of their broadcasts or other communications; b) be impartial c) afford fair opportunity for the presentation of divergent views and dissenting opinions,” reads part of section 61 of the Constitution.
Notwithstanding that, over the years political interference in the editorial policy of state-run newspapers, radio stations and national television saw government media being turned into a campaign tool for ZANU-PF while coverage on the opposition was skewed.
Of all public media, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) is seen as the worst when it comes to bias and unreliability, a development that has resulted in a wave of resistance as advertisers, listeners and viewers turned to alternative outlets, including foreign ones.
Concerns have also been raised over the public media’s failure to treat information as a basic human right for every citizen. The right and responsibility to inform is one of the key elements for any media in a democracy hence the need for the media’s role to be unhindered.
The director of the local chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa Nhlanhla Ngwenya, said if Moyo is to repair the damage of the past, he can’t afford to ignore a clean-up at ZBC.
As the broadcaster’s fortunes plummeted due to unpopularity induced by political interference, ZBC has found itself failing to pay workers for several months.
Ngwenya said if political meddling is rooted out, the financial crisis at the institution would be addressed through licence fees as Zimbabweans are bound to pay if there is quality service from the broadcaster.
“One issue that has remained unresolved is the independence of ZBC as a public broadcaster. What we are witnessing at the broadcaster is a manifestation of excessive political control whereby those that are tasked with manning the station are not chosen out of competence but loyalty to the party,” said Ngwenya.
“Competence is sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. If politicians can allow that broadcaster to operate independently, competent people would be hired and change the fortunes of the ailing station. They will definitely improve the quality of programming thereby attract advertisements.”
While it remains to be seen if the dictates of the new Constitution would be followed, the ball rests squarely in the government’s court.
But would the new brooms at the Information Ministry insulate or forestall undue political pressures at ZBC and other State-run entities or it would be business as usual? Would there be constructive criticism of the government’s failures in the public media or there would be suppression of public oversight of the government? Would the public media continue to manipulate and distort information in favour of ZANU-PF and would leading ZANU-PF supporters be appointed to run institutions under the information ministry’s parastatals? Crucially, would the public see a government that facilitates the free flow of information or an interventionist government?
Political analyst, Gideon Chitanga, said a shift from entrenched partisan polarisation in the public media would result in focus resting on critical national issues of public concern.
He said the public media should engender public discourse on issues of national cohesion, healing, transparency, accountability, development and abuse of public resources.
“There is need for more scrutiny of public officials with respect to their official duties in order to provide the public with accurate information to assess both government, the private sector, civil society and such officials,” said Chitanga.
“The public media has remained stuck in the subjective polarised partisan electoral politics. They have no respect for journalistic ethics and critical societal values that ought to be foundational to a progressive society.”
To guarantee impartiality to all media services, with the public media being equally held accountable and protected from abuse, consideration should be given to the development of a regulation model that reinforces the spirit of fairness.
Zimrights director, Okay Matshisa, said he was encouraged by the path that Moyo has taken so far in hearing the concerns of stakeholders but emphasised that partisanship and interference needed to be addressed as this would also go a long way in fostering human rights.